Classic Excuse to Be Festive in the Middle of Summer; Terry Grimley Looks at What's on Offer at This Summer's Classical Music Festivals

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Middle England's classical music festival season is upon us, with Warwick and Leamington leading the way from tomorrow and the festivals which traditionally overlap it - Lichfield and Cheltenham - about to swing into action.

It is somehow decreed that these festivals come in two waves with Warwick, Lichfield and Cheltenham in the first at the beginning of July and the ancient and peripatetic Three Choirs - in Worcester this year - joined by the stripling Presteigne in late August.

In between comes a void during which we are assumed to have packed our buckets and spades and headed for the beach - although, if you head inland instead, you can catch the Buxton Opera Festival held among the delights of the Peak District in late July.

To the first wave must now be added Birmingham's choral festival 'Voices in the City', now coming up for its third year. But from next year this Symphony Hall-focused event will switch to October to become a month-long, city-wide festival, with a centenary performance of Elgar's Dream of Gerontius, conducted by Sir Simon Rattle, at its heart.

This year's Voices in the City features a visit from US gospel group Sweet Honey in the Rock, Mark Elder conducting Beethoven's Missa Solemnis, a visit from the choir of St Paul's Cathedral, an 80th Birthday celebration for jazz pianist George Shearing and a fund-raising concert for the Symphony Hall organ, conducted by Sir David Willcocks.

None of these festivals is exclusively limited to classical music, although that is where they are securely rooted. Warwick has recently added a jazz seasoning which continues this year with Niels Ryde's visit from Denmark, and even the Three Choirs nods to Duke Ellington's centenary with the aid of Stan Tracey.

Cheltenham, recently rejuvenated under Michael Berkeley's direction, continues its traditional emphasis on new and newish British music. This year it offers a welcome retrospective of former CBSO composer-in-association Mark-Anthony Turnage, whose opera based on Sean O'Casey's The Silver Tassie promises to be one of the highlights of 2000.

That will feature the orchestra of the English National Opera, but do you actually need an orchestra to write an opera?

Andrew Gant didn't think so when he came to compose one inspired by Graham Greene's short story Can We Borrow Your Husband? His a capella setting receives its first two performances at Lichfield.

John McCabe, who celebrates his 60th birthday this year, appears in several festivals as both composer and pianist.

Next Friday, for example, he plays Elgar's Piano Quintet with the Vanbrugh String Quartet at Warwick, in a concert which also includes his own Fifth Quartet.

The Vanbrughs play the same work at the Presteigne Festival in August, when McCabe will be composer-in-residence.

The Czech flavour, which has always been part of the Warwick mix, is emphasised by, among other things, the inclusion of no fewer than a dozen works by living Czech composers.

These include three by Sylvie Bodorova, whose Terezin Ghetto Requiem, commemorating the 'showpiece' concentration camp through which effectively a whole generation of Czech composers passed on its way to oblivion, is said to have had an amazingly emotional impact on its Warwick premiere last year.

There's a chance to hear it again at Holy Trinity Church, Leamington, next Wednesday. The festival also includes two Bodorova premieres - a piece for strings, wind, brass and percussion, played by the County String Training Orchestra at St Nicholas's Church on Saturday afternoon, and a song-cycle, Ama me, performed by Nigel Cliffe with the Schubert Ensemble of London at Leamington's newly refurbished Royal Pump Rooms on Tuesday.

FESTIVAL GUIDE

WARWICK & LEAMINGTON

Dates: From tomorrow until July 10. …